Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak can use all the power he has at home to muzzle his officials in Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency, the Auditor-General, Bank Negara Malaysia and threaten or charge his detractors and critics Din Merican @UCusing the Sedition Act and the Multimedia and Communications Commission. But there is one thing he should know and that is, he has no influence whatsoever with the Swiss and Singapore authorities.
Switzerland and Singapore are global financial centers with solid reputation for their commitment to the Rule of Law, integrity and probity, good governance, and professionalism. It is immaterial whether our authorities will cooperate with their regulators, they will proceed with their investigations.
I don’t know who Najib Razak’s friends are in Saudi Arabia, but I sure want a few.
Who wouldn’t covet a pal or two willing to toss you $700 million as a “gift,” no strings attached? That’s at least the Malaysian prime minister’s story, and he’s sticking to it. Politicians overseas, meanwhile, would sure love to have Najib’s electorate. Since the Wall Street Journal broke news of his good fortune, Najib has displayed a fatalistic willingness to take an entire economy down so he can stay in office. And his party harbors little fear of losing power.
There’s the “Twilight Zone” and there’s the “Malaysia Zone,” and just try discerning the difference. Najib-gate grew even more surreal last week when Malaysia’s attorney general suddenly cleared him of criminal or corruption charges. In a hastily-arranged press conference, Mohamed Apandi Ali said Najib had returned all but $61 million of that “donation” from the Saudi royal family. Somehow, Apandi kept a straight face as he declared the matter closed.
Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, was cleared of any wrongdoing by Malaysia’s attorney general in relation to almost $700 million entering his personal bank account via entities linked to 1MDB, the state fund set up by Mr. Najib in 2009.– Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg
But Swiss authorities couldn’t. On Monday, they detailed allegations that a state fund Najib controls may have misappropriated about $4 billion from state companies. Malaysia responded with outrage – outrage the Swiss dared bring transparency into the Malaysia Zone. “By making a public statement, in my opinion, it is not good because it not only strains ties between the two countries, but also creates bias in media reports,” Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamid said and, yes, with a straight face.
Respect, Switzerland. Respect. It’s never easy to be a whistleblower, but that’s especially so when your main industry is helping the rich camouflage wealth. Reputational risk couldn’t stop Bern from shaming a Malaysian government used to pulling the wool over the eyes of its 30 million people. Not all Malaysians, of course, but those keeping Najib’s United Malays National Organisation in business.
Yet Malaysia Inc. went too far in the camouflage department for Swiss officials. Ditto for the U.S. and Singapore. U.S. officials are probing Goldman Sachs’s role as an advisor; Singapore seized a series of accounts amid investigations into money laundering and other alleged offenses related to 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the fund Najib created in 2009. Ostensibly, 1MDB was set up to spur economic growth. Instead, it’s emblematic of why Malaysia is becoming a smaller blip on investors’ radar screens.
The $700 million scandal is merely a symptom, albeit a gargantuan one, of a more important number: 54. That’s Malaysia’s ranking in Transparency International’s 2015 corruption perceptions index, and it’s down four levels from a year earlier. In 2014, Saudi Arabia trailed Malaysia five places. By 2015, Najib’s supposed benefactor leapfrogged ahead of Malaysia, ranking in the 48th percentile. The perception corruption has worsened on Najib’s watch (a Swiss one, perhaps?) can be found in everything from stock and currency gyrations to foreign-direct-investment trends to divergent political dynamics in Asia.
Indonesia, for example, jumped 19 places on Transparency International’s tables since 2014, even besting the Philippines (another nation cleaning up its act). The difference between Jakarta and Putrajaya? Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s methodical focus on eradicating graft, putting more government functions and services online and recruiting credible deputies is paying off. As Jakarta reduces opacity, Putrajaya is increasingly shrouding itself from the global media, local activists and its people.
THE TIDBITS THAT DO ESCAPE NAJIB’S FIREWALL are of the you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up-if-you-tried variety. In December, we learned the Federal Bureau of Investigation is eyeing Najib family assets in connection with Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Wolf of Wall Street” film (a company set up by his stepson produced it). Don’t forget perpetual efforts to imprison opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges from the late 1990s. Hence jokes that CBS’s next crime-scene investigation series should be “CSI: Malaysia.” Or about the irony of a government that can’t find a Boeing 777 having no trouble locating Anwar’s body fluids two decades later.
The controversy surrounding MH370, missing since March 2014, and 1MDB stem from the same problem: a political elite that cares about staying in power, not the people. That charge could be lobbed at the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan or America’s Republicans. But neither has held power continuously for six decades, as UMNO has. When the world looked Malaysia’s way amid the greatest aviation mystery since Amelia Earhart, the government was woefully unprepared for primetime. It should’ve learned then that circling the wagons and shutting the world out is a losing strategy.
Only, it didn’t. Najib’s team repeated similar mistakes with 1MDB. First, it dismissed the Journal’s July 2015 report following 1MDB money into Najib’s account personal accounts as some conspiracy to undermine Malaysia. Then, after Putrajaya could no longer ignore the storm, it effectively said “Oh yeah, that. It was a gift. Trust us.” Then, awkwardly, the attorney general whitewashed the crisis. The matter, Najib declared after the ruling, “has been comprehensively put to rest.”
Hardly, Swiss prosecutors retorted this week. Burying such a global scandal is no longer possible in a globalized world in which Malaysia competes for investment. The growing number of foreign probes -– and escalating ones at that –- risk denting Malaysia’s standing. They’re also as clear an explanation as any for why Malaysia is being left behind as Indonesia, the Philippines and other neighbors zoom ahead.
Thing is, Malaysia is an amazing and unique place and I urge anyone who hasn’t visited to check it out. Its breathtaking physical beauty is only rivaled by the energy of its multiethnic population, a thriving culinary scene second to few and enviable geographical placement as China, India and Southeast Asia blossom and change the world. Sadly, it’s run by a government that claims all’s well when the rest of the world knows something’s rotten in Najib’s Malaysia. And with a straight face.
Whenever we praise a person, we point out his or her brilliance – most often in a professional sense, as it’s a difficult virtue to assess in the personal sphere. But should a life be only gauged by individual professional landmarks or on the other lives that have been touched in a meaningful way?The latter ability, for the past century or so, has been called “empathy.” And these days, some of the brightest minds in neurological research consider it to be THE defining human attribute, and the key to our survival in the future. Empathy, the dictionaries say, is the ability to see a person’s issues from their perspective, to stand in their shoes, not merely look on with that more familiar yet more distant emotion – sympathy. In short, feeling with – rather than just feeling for – something or someone.
In the era of 24X7 television coverage and intense social media interactions, empathy should be a very readily evoked emotion. But while these two phenomena are possibly the reasons for the increase in candle-light vigils, true empathy remains an elusive virtue.The late Princess Diana was probably the first celebrity who demonstrated empathy when she went further than being just a patron of hundreds of charities. Hugging AIDS patients and sitting with a landmine-maimed child showed empathy, not just sympathy.Diana’s empathy highlighted causes in a more direct way – and was more effective than mere sympathy. It made a difference to the treatment of the broader issues epitomised by the ones she literally touched. But empathy should not be seen as just a celebrity prerogative.
Last week, at the memorial meeting for Arindam Sengupta, managing editor of The Times of India – one of whose predecessors described his job as India’s second most important – one speaker, expectedly, was a senior minister. Another was a company driver.The rest of the congregation was equally diverse. This turnout for a man who spent a lifetime in the hard-bitten, frenetically paced world of journalism underlined what made him special. It wasn’t his rewriting or headline skills, but his ability to connect, to empathise.Sympathy is good, too. It makes us hand out coins to those ubiquitous beggars at traffic crossings, for example. Empathy need not make us run to find them livelihoods, but it makes us wonder what else they may need: like that bottle of clean drinking water in our cars. Empathy is relevant in workplaces, too. The ability to see a situation in a colleague’s perspective can resolve many an office situation.And this ability to understand the other before acting engenders respect – as Arindam’s colleagues at TOI will vouch for.
Neuro scientists are clearly fascinated by the role of this emotion and its role in what is called the “affective revolution.” Since other animals have also been deemed capable of empathy, it’s obviously already hardwired in brains rather than fostered or learnt.It is now established that some of the neural systems triggered by personal pain can also come into play when seeing the suffering of others. What needs to be examined scientifically is the kind of circumstances that can activate the emotion.As the world ranges itself into antagonistic camps on issues that in actual fact affect us all – from climate change to pollution to animal welfare – the importance of empathy cannot be overemphasised. We need to be able to look at things from the angle of others. Like the minister and the driver who spoke at that memorial, everyone’s voices – powerful or poor, majority or minority – need to be heard and understood equally if we are to survive. But at least we can count on Arindam to put in an empathetic word for us up there…
‘Wonder’ is one of those simple words we think we know the meaning of, till we begin to articulate what it really means to us. We could say that wonder is present when we experience a powerful moment of awe, with its combination of dread and excitement, after which one seems to have anew perception and appreciation of life.We might agree it arises from our natural, inborn curiosity about life, increasing our capacity to be enthusiastic explorers of the outer physical world through our senses, as well as of the inner world of the emotions and spirit through slowing down and reflection.Or we might describe it as the capacity to remain aware and present to the delights of small things that easily go unnoticed, and to do this with undiluted joy. Much like when we were children.Wonder isn’t something we do, but something that happens to us; we can’t force it — but by remaining open to it, we find it is actually in some way cultivable — because having a sense of wonder for grownups is actually a choice.t is consciously being open, and responding to what seems miraculous and often inexplicable. It is also looking at reality, with its beauty as well as its flaws, and deciding it is precious and meaningful. When we say, “I wonder…,” it implies we don’t really know. So, the stepping-off point to rediscover wonder is to give ourselves permission to be fresh, new learners or rediscoverers. What triggers wonder in us is all around us, every moment.
Pain in his ass